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[Korea heatwave 2018] To do business in a heat wave, crank the A/C

Aug 07,2018
Left: Customers crowd Lotte World Tower in Jamsil, southern Seoul, to escape the heat wave. Right: The traditional Jungbu Market in central Seoul, on the other hand, is almost empty on July 30. [YONHAP]
Last week, Korea recorded its highest-ever summer temperatures, and afternoon temperatures steadily hovered about 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the week.

Despite the sweltering heat, several merchants at the Saemaul Market in southern Seoul still had their doors and windows wide open last Friday, waiting for consumers to come.

Korea’s traditional markets display products in rows at outdoor stalls instead of indoor ones. Normally, this strategy helps catch the eye of grocery shoppers strolling by, but thanks to Friday’s unrelenting heat, the road was largely empty.

“Summer is always a difficult season, but this year, the sales drop is extreme - there’s hardly any revenue at all,” said a 67-year-old merchant surnamed Kim who sells socks at a stall near the market’s main entrance. “It might be better to just rest well at home with this kind of weather.”

A third of the stores on the market’s main street were empty, with signs indicating the owners were on vacation.

The situation is particularly harsh for merchants who sell fresh food. “Fruits don’t last long in the summer,” said Jeon Byung-ok, 56, who has run a fruit store on the market’s main road for 15 years. “I reduced the amount of fruit I buy from the wholesale market by 30 to 40 percent compared to the previous summer.”

Lotte World Mall, only a few stops on the bus away from the market, had a completely different atmosphere. Just the day before, on Thursday, the mall had 210,000 daily visitors, the most since it opened in April 2017. This is double the average number of daily visitors to Lotte World Mall in the first half of the year.

The mall’s three air-conditioned floors were crowded, even though it was a weekday. Most of the cafes were full and so were the benches installed in public spaces.

A diverse crowd took in the cool air. Mothers and fathers came with children in strollers. Some people brought their dogs on leashes. Students on summer vacations also sought refuge from the heat.

A group of elderly women ate grapes out of a lunch box together around some benches and tables. A few tables away, a man in casual clothes read a book by himself.

“I’ve been coming here often this summer,” said a 77-year-old man surnamed Lee, who lives 15 minutes away from the mall by bike. “I look around when I’m here and occasionally buy stuff, too. It’s my stop before going outdoors to exercise at the park around Seokchon Lake [in southern Seoul.]”

Large discount retailers and department stores are also proving to be a haven for people trying to avoid the heat. Lotte Department Store’s sales from July 11 to 31 were 7.2 percent higher than the same period last year.

“The average time consumers spent per visit last month was three and a half hours based on parking lot records. This is 1.5 times more than the conventional two hours,” said a Lotte spokesman.

Hyundai and Shinsegae Department Stores also saw their revenues increase by around 10 percent year on year for the last two weeks of July. The double-digit revenue growth rate at this time of year is unusual, as department store sales are usually sluggish as people go on summer vacation.

At Emart, sales rose by 2.1 percent in the last two weeks of July from last year, while the number of shoppers rose by 3.6 percent. With more customers than expected, Emart decided to delay the closing time of 66 out of its 143 locations by 30 minutes to one hour, starting from July 20.

Fully air-conditioned businesses such as internet cafes, billiard halls and cafes are enjoying boosts to their revenues as well.

“The number of customers visiting our 20 locations across the country has increased by about 30 percent compared to the same period last year,” said a billiard hall franchise official.

For gamers, internet cafes have become a daily stop after work. “It’s a good place to spend time because I can play games and order food, and the air conditioner is always on full blast,” said Lim Soo-in, a 35-year-old office worker. Lim has been heading straight to an internet cafe near his home in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, since the heat wave started last month.

“The number of customers nearly doubled from last month, and customers tend to stay longer, too,” said an employee at the 3POP internet cafe in Busan, which, with 700 seats, is the largest in the country. The internet cafe nearly doubled its staff from six to eleven workers this month, but is still hiring more workers to keep up with the unexpected spike in business.

Ipchu, or the official start of fall according to Korea’s traditional farming calendar, is today, but the heat wave so far shows no sign of slowing down.

The Korea Meteorological Administration said in a forecast released on Sunday that afternoon highs would likely continue to surpass 35 degrees Celsius until next week.

“The temperatures won’t drastically fall at night so, to be safe, refrain from engaging in outdoor activities for a long period,” it advised.


BY SONG KYOUNG-SON, KIM MIN-JOONG AND KIM JEONG-YEON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]


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